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Mapping the highways of the brain
 
DEANNA BARCH, BEHAVIORAL NEUROSCIENTIST, WASHINGTON UNIVERSITY: We’ve been using MRI machines for the last ten to twenty years to try to look at brain function and starting to look at brain connectivity. What I do is look at how the different parts of the brain work together to produce behavior.
And I think that’s the most simple way to think about the Connectome. It’s about how does the brain work together. And is there something about how well those different parts of the brain talk to each other that helps you do certain kinds of behaviors?
The Human Connectome Project, which doctor Barch is a part of, is one of many that mark a surge forward in Neuroscience. In fact, in April of 2013, President Obama announced the BRAIN initiative with 100 million dollars budgeted for the first year.
PRESIDENT OBAMA: “…by giving scientists the tools they need to get a dynamic picture of the brain in action and better understand how we think and how we learn and how we remember.”
DEANNA BARCH, BEHAVIORAL NEUROSCIENTIST, WASHINGTON UNIVERSITY: What we’re doing in this project is pretty different in a couple ways. We have really state-of-the-art techniques and equipment that are gonna let us do this in a much finer grain way than it has ever been done before. We’re going to be studying approximately 1,200 individuals across a wide range of things like education levels, and income levels…people from different racial and ethnic backgrounds. So we can have a much better sense of the kind of true normal range of brain connections.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: “Are you ready to go?” UNIDENTIFIED MAN: “Yup.”
So what Jim’s going through is similar to what a typical participant would do in one of our studies.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: “Okay?” UNIDENTIFIED MAN: “Pretty straightforward.”
They do four different MRI sessions that each captures different pieces of information so we have one MRI session that really focuses on getting high resolution pictures of brain structure.
Then they do a couple MRI sessions where we look at what we call resting-state functional connectivities; They’re spontaneous fluctuations in brain activity that occur over time and we’re interested in measuring those and using it to understand which areas of the brain are kind of fluctuating together.
And we also have people do some specific cognitive tasks while they’re in the scanner to understand what parts of the brain are active when people are processing certain kinds of information or doing certain memory tasks or remembering things.
We have people listen to language and process language. We have people do math, we have people look at emotional faces.
We have people watch videos that have social interactions in them and look at the parts of the brain that respond to social cognition. And then the last scan session that people do is using a particular technique called Diffusion Imaging. That is really trying to get at mapping that highway system in terms of those white matter connections between different parts of the brain.
You know, one of the things I think we’re really hoping comes out of this is to understand early indicators of when people might be starting to have difficulties with brain connectivity. I mean, some of it is just basic science, trying to understand how the brain works and how the brain contributes to how we behave but a lot of it has clinical application.
Source: nytimes

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